Married Nearly 65 Years, They’re Still Shaping Portland

Driven by their faith, Leonard and Mary Jane Cummings have led the charge to restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, among other causes.

Leonard Cummings in the Abyssinian Meeting House
By Monica Wood
Photographed by Danielle Sykes
From our November 2021 issue

Even as a youngster, living with his mother and siblings above Benny’s Meat Market, on Portland’s Congress Street, Leonard Cummings was aware of Mary Jane Hill. Three years younger, she lived a few blocks away, in a single-family house on Forest Street. “I saw her once in her Girl Scout uniform,” Leonard recalls, a lifetime later.

“You didn’t see me in my Girl Scout uniform,” Mary Jane protests.

“I did,” he insists. “I saw a picture.”

Whoever is right, the point is that Mary Jane and Leonard go back a long way. Married 65 years, they have together built a legacy of community activism, anchored by their deep faith in God. And now, in their 80s, they’re witnessing the completion of their most ambitious and hard-won project: restoring Portland’s storied Abyssinian Meeting House.

Their friendship began in earnest at Portland High School, where Leonard was an athlete and class president. Mary Jane was also a class officer and, in Leonard’s words, “a smart girl, a really smart girl — until she met up with me.” A date to the senior prom ignited a courtship that eventually led to a marriage proposal — over the phone. By then, Leonard was a finance clerk in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. Mary Jane was back home, working, saving, and sending letters and cookies to her sweetheart. They were married on New Year’s Eve 1956.

The Cummingses both speak of happy, even idyllic childhoods, but like all African-American young people, they eventually confronted the inevitability of racism. Leonard’s moment came one night in St. Louis, when he stopped for coffee at a White Castle burger shop. He was in uniform at the time; it was raining, not a soul in the place. “I can sell you the coffee,” the man behind the counter said, “but you’re not gonna drink it in here.” The words landed hard and sting to this day. Mary Jane’s epiphany was more subtle, coming just after her high-school graduation, when a fellow student snubbed her on the street. She knew what it meant. “Wow, there is discrimination here,” she remembers saying to herself. “This is real.”

Leonard Cummings, second from left, in 1972, with other Black leaders, at the formation of a body called the State Black Caucus.
Leonard, second from left, in 1972, with other Black leaders, at the formation of a body called the State Black Caucus. Photo courtesy Gerald E. Talbot Collection, African American Collection of Maine, Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries.

When the couple returned home from Kansas, after Leonard’s hitch was up, an apartment came open next door to Mary Jane’s childhood home — the house her grandmother had bought in 1898, which had sheltered three generations of a family going back at least nine generations in Portland. And yet, she was refused rent, along with her husband, whose great-grandfather, an African Methodist Episcopal minister in South Carolina, had bought his own freedom.

“But we were young, ambitious kids,” Leonard recalls, so they followed their hearts not only towards each other but towards the goals of social justice. They determined from the get-go that their children would never have “that coffee-shop experience.”

Particularly in those days, the goal was daunting. “My white classmates went down one road,” Mary Jane says, “and I went another way.” Leonard adds, “There were so few choices back then, you didn’t even know what to ask for.” Perhaps because of those limited choices, they both take pride in family histories of hard work. Leonard’s mother worked days as a matron in the ladies’ room at Union Station and evenings as a cook for a prominent local family. His aunt looked after the children, Leonard says, and “kept us straight.” Another formidable elder was uncle Eddie Cummings, a semipro baseball player barred from the majors because of his race. Eddie was a captain of the baggage handlers known as Red Caps, at Portland’s Union Station, and part of the unionization there in 1938 — a life-changer for Black workers. He was also part of Portland’s famed Eastern Real Estate Company, a Black-owned enterprise that thrived from 1912 to 2001. (Leonard has donated its archives to the University of Southern Maine.) Called “the taskmaster” by the children, Eddie’s enduring motto was “Get a job; save your money.” His nephew listened: Leonard eventually made a successful 30-year career at New England Telephone as an equipment-installation manager.

Mary Jane in 1967, with other members of the Portland branch of the NAACP.
Mary Jane in 1967, with other members of the Portland branch of the NAACP. Photo courtesy Gerald E. Talbot Collection, African American Collection of Maine, Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries.

Mary Jane’s family also knew the value of work. Her father, a Teamster, drove big rigs; her mother was an elevator operator. Leonard is quick to add that his wife was promoted from her own elevator-operator job, at Portland’s iconic Porteous department store, to gift wrapper, a full-time job with benefits. “That was unique,” he says with pride. “Not a lot of Black girls got those jobs.” In other words, elevator operator was a “Black” job; gift wrapper was a “white” job. Her later working life included stints at Gulf Oil, New England Telephone, and Unum — which is where she was, on the typing-pool evening shift, when she heard the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder. Some of the women went home, but not Mary Jane; she kept working despite her shock and grief.

From this rich, historically fraught background emerged the couple’s bone-deep sense of responsibility. At a Pentecostal service they once attended at a friend’s invitation, a minister laid hands on Leonard and proclaimed, “God has a special mission for you.” The couple never forgot these words. While raising their children, they became widely respected advocates not just for African Americans, but for all people, serving causes as varied as the Green Memorial AME Zion Church, the Greater Portland YWCA, the American Cancer Society, and the Portland NAACP (in the ’70s, Leonard served as president). They lobbied for legislation of Martin Luther King Day in Maine and spearheaded the first annual MLK breakfast in Portland.

But the Abyssinian Meeting House is the most visible testament to the Cummings’s civic commitment. Built in 1828 by a group of free Black men, the building served as a house of worship, a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a public school for African-American children. Situated near the foot of Munjoy Hill, the Abyssinian was rescued from oblivion in 1998, after one of Leonard and Mary Jane’s four children, Deborah Cummings Khadraoui, read an editorial decrying the state of the building, which had been converted into apartments and repossessed by the city for unpaid taxes.

Khadraoui founded the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, which included, initially, her parents and several Black community leaders and, later on, other community leaders and historians. That the effort has continued nearly 25 years owes entirely to the fact that, as their daughter puts it, her parents “kept picking up the ball and running with it.” Thanks to their persistence, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the country’s third-oldest surviving African-American house of worship.

As if recalling Uncle Eddie’s advice, the Committee borrowed no money for the project, relying instead on grants and donations. In the wake of the demonstrations that followed George Floyd’s murder last year, over $300,000 poured in from private citizens, as well as some city funds. Gorgeous, historically accurate windows and doors were recently installed, and the building is nearly ready for a very grand opening as a gathering place and museum dedicated to Black history and culture in Maine. Ever willing to share credit, Leonard says, “The community deserves a big thank-you.”

It’s sweet serendipity that a house of worship has taken up so much room in their shared life. “It’s strong faith that gets me through,” Mary Jane says. “In marriage, in our family, in our work. It’s the belief that God is with me.”

“Like that day in church,” Leonard adds, “when God said, ‘You have something to do.’”

Leonard and Mary Jane Cummings had something to do. And they’ve done it.

From our special “70 Over 70” feature, profiling dozens Mainers from all walks of life, all of them over 70 years old. Find a few “70 Over 70” stories here on the website, and pick up a copy of our November 2021 issue to read them all!